The ninth edition of the Rugby World Cup begins Friday, as hosts Japan (1-41) take on Russia (40-1) at Tokyo Stadium. The tournament, which will feature matches in twelve Japanese cities, and host some 600,000 rugby fans, would be a major international sporting event in its own right. Compared to next year’s Summer Olympics, however, the World Cup serves as a dress rehearsal.
Two-time defending champion New Zealand are heavy favorites (6-4) to three-peat, and collect their fourth title overall. The All Blacks (4-9) take on arch rival, South Africa (4-1), Saturday in Yokohama. New Zealand are, by some distance, the deepest, most talented, and experienced team in the tournament. Forward Scott Barrett and and back Richie Mo’unga are only part of captain Kieran Read’s embarrassment of riches. They haven’t always gelled well together, however.
South Africa are ever-so-slight favorites over England to take silver (both 9-2). The Springboks are coming off a surprising Rugby Championship series last month, winning the southern hemisphere’s premier tournament for the first time in ten years. The Lions, meanwhile, are always a strong team, particularly when they’re at full strength, as they are now. They (1-41) open with Tonga (50-1) Saturday in Sapporo.
The #1-ranked team in the world play on the Emerald Isle. Ireland are an up and down squad, never having advanced beyond the quarterfinals. Boasting a famous win in Dublin over the All Blacks in 2018, Ireland then had a lackluster Six Nations tournament in March, finishing third. They remain favorites to advance out of Group A, however, and boast the best odds (10-1) to win the whole thing, over Scotland (80-1) and Japan (300-1).
Also favored to get out of group play are shorthanded Wales (12-1), inconsistent Australia (20-1), and underachieving France (33-1). Wales won this year’s Six Nations, but are without fly-half Gareth Anscombe. Nowhere was the Wallabies’ inconsistency on more prominent recent display than at last month’s Rugby Championship. They were thumped, 35-17, by South Africa in Round 1, then spoiled the All Blacks’ title hopes in Round 3, 47-26. Les Bleus (9-10) open Saturday with Argentina (5-4) in Tokyo, with the winner in a strong position to advance.
Team USA, meanwhile, are among the longest of long shots (2,500-1) in Japan. The Eagles, who have still qualified for every World Cup, except 1995, are hoping for a win, which they failed to achieve four years ago. More importantly, USA Rugby are hoping to grow the game back home, where it enjoys a relatively small yet dedicated fan base. Their best chance is probably October 13, when the Eagles (13-10) play Tonga (33-50) in Higashiosaka.
American fans will have plenty of opportunities to catch every moment of the 2019 Rugby World Cup— for a price. Select matches will air on NBCSN and NBC, including Friday morning’s Japan-Russia tilt, and all four USA matches. The rest will air on the NBC Sports Gold streaming package, for $29.99 a match, or $199.99 for the entire tournament. Japan’s NHK, meanwhile, will air matches in stunning 8K resolution. Check local listings everywhere else.